How Much Math Is Enough?

By Daniel Gursky — September 01, 1989 3 min read

When Paul Burke received a letter from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics soliciting his views on a proposed new math curriculum, he responded with an alternate plan of his own. He got a polite form letter thanking him for his comments.

When he sent the same ideas to Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, however, he sparked something of a national debate about math requirements.

Raspberry, a frequent writer about education whose syndicated column appears in more than 150 newspapers, liked Burke’s proposal for teaching “math you can use.” In fact, he devoted his March 15 column to it (“Math Isn’t for Everyone”), which ended with an invitation: “I find Burke’s ideas appealing, but I’d be glad to entertain others in the interest of productive debate. Any takers?”

That column inspired dozens of spirited responses, including rebuttals from many math teachers and the U.S. secretary of education. Raspberry aired the debate in two subsequent columns.

The proposal is simple: “Everyone should study percents, statistics, logic (i.e. geometric proof, symbolic language, or law), and a computer language,” wrote Burke, a former high school math teacher who is now a social scientist at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While the draft recommendations from the math teachers’ association call for students to take more advanced courses such as trigonometry and precalculus, Burke says such courses are unnecessary.

“The country does not need all students to study polynomials, geometry of triangles, etc. These are unneeded barriers in high school. They make students feel dumb. Many others forget the subject after the exam, and time could be better spent on other math, on problem solving, or on other subjects,” Burke says.

Raspberry says the responses to the column on Burke’s idea really tended to fall into two groups: “teachers of mathematics who thought the idea expressed was treasonous, and essentially everyone else who thought, `Yeah.’”

Among those who disagree with Burke are Eileen Backofen and Barbara Ringgold, both math teachers in Falls Church, Va.

In a letter to Raspberry, they wrote: “If you are a successful, well-educated professional, how much (blank) do you use?” The blank, they argued, could be filled by any required subject.

“We believe this nation’s schools and universities have already experimented with Mr. Burke’s suggestion of allowing students to avoid a core curriculum and substitute ‘something else that they like,’” the teachers wrote. “We are not comfortable,” they continued, “with a situation in which a student is encouraged to ignore simultaneous equations in favor of theater arts or replace English literature with writing technical reports.”

The debate in Raspberry’s columns thrust Burke into the national limelight: appearances on NBC’s “The Today Show” and The Christian Science Monitor‘s cable TV program, “World Monitor.” Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos rebutted Burke’s proposal in an Op-Ed piece in The San Diego Union.

Burke wasn’t surprised by his sudden notoriety. Many adults can relate to the issue, he says, noting that “a lot of people faced with adding or doing their taxes are reminded of how unhappy they were in high school math.” To test his belief that most adults never use such math skills in real life, Burke conducted an informal survey. “I found other people using a few different things from what I expected,” he says, “but not much advanced algebra and geometry of triangles. Math showed up everywhere, but it’s usually percentages and statistics.”

Raspberry says he might disagree slightly with Burke on a specific math curriculum, but he supports Burke’s general notion that students should be taught “the math that today’s successful professionals use.”

“The fact is that most people don’t need math beyond elementary algebra,” Raspberry says. Raspberry and Burke stress, however, that schools should offer an ample selection of courses in higher math as electives.

These ideas clearly are applicable to disciplines other than math. “There’s just not enough time to learn everything in depth,” Raspberry says. “We should learn enough of most things so we can make intelligent judgments and decide if we want to learn more.”

As he put it in a column: “I’d rather have all of our children learn the mathematics they will have to use than force the uninterested to suffer through poorly taught number theory; rather have them learn to read, write, speak, and appreciate good English than require poor readers to play at analyzing Elizabethan sonnets.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as How Much Math Is Enough?